It keeps happening.
You breathe faster, your heartbeat quickens, your blood sugar rises, and your brain uses more oxygen as it shifts into high alert.
Deep down you know you need to keep calm, but stress is sneaking its way into your vacation.
Why is the one week you have spent all year planning on getting ultimate relaxation in, so stressful?
The truth is, your habitual stress responses from everyday life have followed you on vacation. The stress may even feel stronger from the induced pressure to relax.
You can’t help but marvel at the other vacationers who are carefree and seemingly have a good time no matter what. They have a sense of peace you can’t fathom achieving.
How do you attain that?
How do you find the rest and relaxation you need to come back from your week refreshed, revived, and full of happy memories you dream of remembering forever?
If you are feeling stressed out over something that is supposed to be fun, it is time to reassess. Chronic stress promotes higher levels of inflammation which contributes to many diseases. Cardiovascular, diabetes, and arthritis are just a few. When your body’s immune system is constantly fighting inflammation from stress, its response towards healing wounds or warding off illness is weakened.
Symptoms of chronic stress if not managed, can lead to chronic disease. It has been linked to digestive disorders, headaches, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, urinary problems, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.
And these issues are not something you want to add to your luggage when you are on vacation. Learning healthy ways to cope with your stress can boost your resilience when you encounter something that triggers it. It starts by understanding your brain and its role as your travel companion.
The Role of Your Brain with Stress
Your brain is the central organ of stress and adaptation. Your reaction towards adapting to stressful situations occurs in what is called ‘brain-body communication.’ Interconnected circuits in your brain are activated to help you deal with challenges and return your body and mind to a balanced state. How you choose to deal with stress defines how quickly your brain-body communication is activated to help you adapt and recover.
Remembering that your reactions are a choice, is a great step towards your ability to enjoy life more. If you’re wondering how, after years of habitually reacting to stress in a similar way, you will be able to switch gears now, the answer is within a function of your brain called ‘neuroplasticity.’
It is the capacity of your brain cells to change in response to internal and external factors. Stress, exercise, diet, sleep patterns and cognitive-stimulating activities like reading are among a variety of activities observed to impact the quality of your brain function which impacts the quality of your life. It can have a negative or positive influence at any age across your entire lifespan, with positive influences building the plasticity, or the power of your brain.
Neuroplasticity is one of the most essential processes your brain performs as it relates to many types of central nervous system (CNS) functions in your body. And your CNS controls your thoughts, movements, emotions, and desires. It also controls your breathing, heart rate, the release of some hormones, your body temperature, and much more. If you improve your reactions to stress, you will improve your neuroplastic growth, which will in turn, improve your immune and central nervous system’s functions.
There are effective behavioral techniques for steering neuroplasticity in a positive direction. Here are four techniques you can utilize to help you rewire your habits towards reacting and coping with stress. With observant practice, you will find yourself at ease on your peaceful, relaxing getaway.
4 Techniques to Help You Relax
1. Plan to Stay Healthy. Research has shown that your ability to successfully engage in healthy behaviors may decline when you are away from your daily routine. This can lead to physical and mental stress. If you know that there will be times of indulgence on your trip, make sure to find activities that help establish balance.
Consider in advance how you will make healthy food choices, get enough exercise and sleep. It is especially important before and during your travels to consciously make time to sleep. Having enough sleep is key to resilience and stress relief. When you have too little sleep, it can lead to poor judgement and your reactions to stress will feel heightened. Being well rested will help you plan and stick to healthy behaviors amidst the temptations and opportunities to indulge.
2. Stay Mindful. Vacation is a time for you to slow down and enjoy the moments with the people and activities you really care about. When you start your vacation, it can be hard to drop the to-do lists and work at the door. Even though you might be sitting comfortably on your beach towel staring at the sea, your brain is sifting through all the things you need to do as soon as you get back. You may feel compelled to check your phone and start the incessant scrolling through social media or emails. Or maybe you find yourself constantly checking on the resort’s schedule to see when you can schedule your family for the volleyball tournament. Your search for stimulus can be stressful, so when you observe yourself doing this, stop and embrace being mindful.
To help you allow thoughts to pass, be mindful and engage your senses in your surroundings. Mentally list off the colors around you, feel how warm the sand and breeze are on your skin. Notice the sound of the gulls calling and the waves crashing. Observe your breath pattern. As stress can speed up your heart and breathing rate, getting control of your breathing is crucial. Try out our simple breathing technique here.
3. Communicate. Your relationships with loved ones whom you can share feelings with, can help with reducing your stress. There is a tendency to isolate yourself when stressed, exercise less and choose unhealthy foods. If you combine staying in your hotel room alone and pizza brought up from room service with your feelings of stress, you are biologically setting yourself up for weight gain and chronic disease. When you are stressed, you burn fewer calories after high-fat meals and produce more of the hormone insulin which will enhance fat storage. Instead, make time to reach out to someone you can talk to, to help you figure out how to bounce back from your stress.
4. Engage in Your Destination. Working during your break interferes with your vacation and prevents you from restoring your creativity before returning. Research has shown that disconnecting from work and engaging in leisure mental tasks or letting your mind wander, helps you boost your creativity and helps you to fully relax. Engage with your travel companions and the destination. Immerse yourself into activities that will help you resist the urge to check your inbox. When you occupy yourself in new activities and unfamiliar areas, it will help pull you from feeling the strain to work and can help distract you from stressful thoughts.
With the help of these techniques, plan to bring home good memories and feelings of relaxation that you truly deserve.
To Your Health,
Kiran Grewal MD